I was standing, holding my young son, looking at my house from outside our front gate. A stranger walked up our garden path and knocked on my door. A woman I didn’t know answered my front door. A woman impeccably dressed as though she’d stepped from a Martha Stewart catalogue. Two perfectly dressed children ran from my front yard to stand by the woman inside my doorway as she talked happily to the stranger.
Outside our fence, I looked at my scruffy shirt, jeans and runners, then at my son’s sauce-stained t-shirt. That’s not real, my head screamed. That’s not me, she’s nothing like me!
A dream? Nope, that’s what actually happened when the US Census circus came to my house. The home of a patriotic Aussie, with a big Australian flag hoisted on the front porch became the quintessential Everyplace, USA.
This is what happens to a TV reporter who retires to the Washington suburbs – after 20 years of asking people if I could film their home/office/families/lives/inner workings, I felt obliged to say yes, when someone finally asked me.
It was a location scout looking for the right house to film for a public service announcement for the 2010 US Census. The white picket fence, the porch swing, not too big, not too small. Like Goldilocks she thought it was just right. What else could I say? It was a good cause. I thought it my civic duty. Besides, they paid.
They started just before 7:00am. We woke to a scraping sound. Peering between the blinds on the front window, I saw two people raking my front yard and a third person hand-picking brown leaves off our hedges.
Suddenly, lush potted plants appeared on our front porch. The wilted blooms dangling from my hanging baskets discreetly disappeared and new, blossom-filled bundles took their place. The Aussie flag was whisked out of sight. A man with a screwdriver was prying the house numbers off our front fence. Camera tracks were being laid down the sidewalk out the front and down the side of our house.
Our wild roses were being hacked back to clear the view. An enormous motor home was parked across the road, a tent was up outside it with costume racks underneath and portable tables were being loaded with coffee urns, hot bagels and fruit for the 26-person crew.
We were barely dressed when the knock came. The director and his entourage wanted to set up a screening room in our basement. Another bank of monitors was being set up in a second tent right outside our house. Parking on our street had been prohibited for the day. Clearly I had underestimated the scope of the US 2010 Census.
The US Department of Commerce is spending $US340 million in an unprecedented outreach program to convince Americans to fill in and send back their 2010 Census form.
Around $US140 million of that is an advertising campaign with ads in 59 languages. During the day of filming at my house, three different women answered my front door to the “census worker” speaking three different languages: Russian, Arabic and Polish. The Russian actor who played “Mother” argued, she didn’t think it was realistic to answer the front door in flat shoes. She insisted she should be wearing high heels. To answer the front door.
You’ve got to have some sympathy for the US Department of Commerce. The census is a once-a-decade chore, mandated by the nation’s founding fathers. There has been a census every decade since 1790 – everyone is supposed to be counted.
The primary function is to determine how to apportion seats in the US House of Representatives among the states. But the end result will help determine how they parcel out $US400 billion worth of federal funding. Schools, emergency services, senior citizen centres, public works and more will be doled out according to “who” and “how many” in every corner of the country.
So, 360 million census questionnaires have been printed and the nation’s largest mobilisation has begun, starting from a remote corner of Alaska, continuing throughout the rest of the United States. Ours arrived this week. According to the Census Bureau, if you were to stack these forms they would stand 29 miles high, five times higher than Mount Everest.
I’m not sure why they’d want to do that though – their job is already hard enough. Suspicion about the census still runs rife. Muslim communities fear it’s an attempt at racial profiling. Hispanic communities worry information will be passed on to immigration officials, though the census doesn’t ask about immigration status.
The hype reached new levels when a US census worker was found dead, gagged, bound and tied to a tree in rural Kentucky last September. Authorities later claimed it was suicide staged to look like murder, for an insurance payout to the worker’s family. But people believed that could happen. It played into the paranoia of the federal government reaching into people’s lives and the extremes that could provoke.
Even members of Congress (and this is supposed to be about accurate representation in Congress) harp about it being a waste of money, especially the advertising campaign.
But if the Census Bureau can convince people to fill it in and post it back, they’ll save enormous sums of money, sending fewer census workers door-to-door to collect the forms. Before the advertising campaigns, the household response was on the decline.
So this is how my house came to be part of the huge advertising machine orchestrated by 14 different ad agencies, combining to convince Americans to send back their census forms, led by the motto: “We Can’t Move Forward Until You Mail It Back.”
Pop stars, Nascar legends, football heroes and others, have all been recruited to help sell the 2010 US Census. Me too, I guess. That’s how I came to be standing outside my own home realising the image of who lived here, didn’t match the reality.
Never mind, it gave the neighbours a laugh – and luckily the only viewers watching will have to understand Russian, Arabic or Polish.
Jill Colgan is an experienced ABC foreign correspondent in Washington.